There have always been two sides to Kurt Busch: The wheelman who won Jack Roush a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in 2004 and 24 races in his career, and the contentious, aggressive personality who has repeatedly gotten himself in trouble off the track.
Both were on display in 2012.
Busch and Penske Racing, his home since 2006, parted ways at the end of 2011 following Busch’s obscenity-laced tirade against an ESPN reporter at the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
By that point, all the top NASCAR Sprint Cup seats for 2012 already were spoken for, so Busch signed with Phoenix Racing, a small, one-car team with only about 15 employees.
While team owner James Finch has been able to buy competitive cars and engines from Hendrick Motorsports, Phoenix Racing has only a fraction of the resources of Busch’s former teams, Penske and Roush Fenway. Finch said, only half kiddingly, that his handshake agreement with Busch for 2012 consisted of “He can’t quit and I can’t fire him.”
“Expectations for us are going to be one week at a time,” Busch said prior to the start of the 2012 season. “Finishing 15th and putting the car back in the hauler without a scratch on it, those are going to be big days.”
In the first half of the year, Busch had a couple of tremendous highs, scoring two emotional victories in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, the first in brother Kyle’s Toyota at Richmond in the spring and then in a Phoenix Racing Chevrolet at Daytona in July.
But there was plenty of trouble, too, as Busch often tried to extract more performance than either his cars or his team were capable of. In his first 13 Cup starts, Busch had only one finish better than 13th, a ninth at Talladega, and for the season the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet was involved in at least a dozen crashes. In the Cup Series, Busch went winless for the first time since 2001.
Busch was put on probation and fined $50,000 by NASCAR after an incident in the Bojangles’ Southern 500, when after the race, Busch ran into the back of Ryan Newman’s car on pit road. Busch and members of Newman’s crew exchanged words after the incident, which Busch said occurred because he was taking his helmet off and didn’t see Newman’s car.
Then, at Dover International Speedway, Sporting News reporter Bob Pockrass attempted to ask Busch if being on probation affected how he raced Justin Allgaier in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race, where the two drivers had contact on the track and an animated discussion afterwards.
“It refrains me from not beating the s--t out of you right now because you ask me stupid questions,” Busch said. “But since I’m on probation, I suppose that’s improper to say as well. If you can talk about racing things, we can talk about racing things, Bob.”
That earned Busch a one-week suspension from NASCAR.
And at Talladega in October, NASCAR parked Busch mid-race. On Lap 99, Busch was leading when he ran out of gas and was hit by Jamie McMurray, spinning out. Safety workers were on the scene of Busch’s stalled car, when he suddenly restarted it and drove off, sending safety equipment flying.
“I was hoping to get the car back to the garage to work on it and get back in this race. NASCAR was yelling at me to stop,” said Busch after parked him for the duration of the race. “I didn't have my helmet on and I was in worse trouble. This is the story of my life. Kurt Busch, leading the race, runs out of gas, tries to get back in the race with that competitive desire, gets yelled at by NASCAR and now I have a storm of media around me and I don't know what to even say or what to do next.”
Despite all the turmoil, Busch’s season ended on a much more positive note.
Talladega was Busch’s final race with Finch, as he moved to Furniture Row Racing for the final five races of the season, the last three of which resulted in top-10 finishes.
So while Busch may have been down in 2012, 2013 might be a much better season. He will return to Furniture Row in 2013, with a one-year contract, as he and team officials both hope he lifts the team up for the whole season as he did in the final three races.
“This is a partnership that puts two programs together such as myself and Furniture Row on the same page to move the needle,” said Busch. “We all want to go out here to try to win races. We want to try to compete at top levels and you need teams, you need drivers, you need engineering support, you need all different elements of a program to be competitive. You just can’t have one superior thing over others and expect it to override other areas of the team. What I mean by that is when you get into the Chase you have teams that have the highest-level driver. They have the highest-level pit crew. The highest-level engineering support, engines and everything else and that is what I think Furniture Row has. It is a diamond in the rough. This program is undiscovered and they have not reached their full potential.”
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No. 7, Danica’s Year Of Hard Knocks
No. 6, Montoya Flames Out
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.